Our wonderful town is fortunate to have a vibrant historic downtown ― a lively, friendly and welcoming place busy with people every day of the week. In the last few weeks, a few events downtown have received lots of attention in both social and traditional media ― the reappearance of people carrying Confederate flags, reported interactions between demonstrators and a local business owner, negative and inaccurate social media posts, and a large turnout of local residents in response. Many of our residents and business owners are rightly concerned about how this impacts our town, including overall safety, attractiveness, and economic consequences.
Role of town government
Let me clarify the role town government plays regarding these recent events as well as those we might anticipate in the future. Our first priority is to ensure public safety for everyone. In addition, we firmly uphold the right to free speech, even for messages that we strongly oppose or find intensely objectionable. Our public sidewalks are a traditional forum where freedom of speech is given great protection. Elected officials can be expected to express particular political views and to articulate community values and aspirations; but when it comes to providing for safety and ensuring free speech rights, the town cannot favor any particular point of view. Nor can the town simply prohibit political gatherings on our sidewalks altogether.
Generally, people on our sidewalks ― including demonstrators with Confederate flags or counter-demonstrators ― will not be asked to move or leave unless they are blocking access to the sidewalk or business entrances, threatening others, or engaging in behavior that endangers the public. It is certainly appropriate to call the police (911) if you see or feel any of that is happening. Based on police observation, the recent demonstrators have not significantly impaired people’s ability to use sidewalks or access businesses. Police also have not received reports of demonstrators threatening others or engaging in behavior that endangers the public.
Anyone inviting the general public to participate in an event or to gather in our public spaces should seek a special event permit since attendance at such events cannot be reasonably anticipated. The purpose for requiring a permit is to ensure public safety and to avoid negative impacts to the provision of public services. Submitting a permit helps our police department and other town services make preparations to keep people safe. Please know that while we ask that organizers follow our special events permitting process, First Amendment-related activities are exempted from provisions of our ordinance’s requirement of special events permits, including permit fees and a 60-day advance submittal of the permit application.
Community and police response
Much of the negativity surrounding these recent events occurred not downtown but on the internet, including reported threats, misinformation, false allegations, and generally ugly postings. I encourage those who love and appreciate our town to take care in their use of social media and to take seriously its power to enhance or damage our community.
Police are investigating reports of threats against the owner of Matthew’s Chocolates; they have had multiple personal communications with the owner; they are providing extra patrol watch on his downtown shop; and they are working with partner organizations across jurisdictions. Since the investigation is active, the police appropriately cannot comment or release details at this time. Our police take very seriously responding to all people they encounter with professionalism and respect, and they conduct internal reviews (including the use of body camera footage) to ensure they adhere to high standards of conduct. Likewise, the police also are adjusting their presence on the streets downtown whenever demonstrators or other large groups are expected to ensure everyone’s safety and the protection of rights.
The occasional presence of groups expressing political views is not the defining characteristic of this diverse, artsy, inclusive, historic, vibrant town. But it is a part of our history since the days of the Regulators. I encourage all those involved in these activities to conduct themselves with respect and civility.
Tom Stevens, mayor